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19.Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Many sites provide FAQs, but are they really as useful as they think?

Frequently asked questions are often seen as some sort of direct connection into the minds of our readers, but they have severe limitations as a medium of knowledge transfer, and many times they are not really what readers actually want, nor are they couched in the terms a person making an inquiry would use.

The term implies that the questions are the most popular ones that their clients have actually asked. However, unless there is the workflow to capture such questions, vet them, and then tabulate their popularity, they are nothing of the sort.

More likely, they are the product of developers or marketing personal throwing together their idea of what people would ask, perhaps instead of writing a real manual. This is perhaps why some sound false or clunky and seem to miss the important information.

While FAQs that have really been asked may be useful in a rare few situations, they lack the cohesiveness and completeness that a comprehensive body of knowledge provides, and so should never be seen as a substitute, nor even as an adjunct. FAQs are more likely to be useful as a single sheet handout or sign for the particular situations where people are only needing a limited amount of very pertinent information.

In those limited situations, there may be more succinct and better structured formats that better address the workflow being performed than a bunch of disparate sentences with interrogatives above them. A procedure with some introductory explanations may be better. And when the subject really requires more than a terse set of platitudes, evidence of a deeper structure may be more comforting to an enquirer.

While a simple fact may be served by a FAQ, though a table of related facts may serve that better, anything more complex will usually require some action, and thus more explanations and simple, straightforward procedures fit that requirement better. This is the province of what a well-structured manual is designed for. Just looking at the table of contents of such a document should make it easy to find the particular information.

Manuals used to be quite verbose, with pages of text under each heading, and requiring numbering of tables and figures just to know which one is relevant, because they would often be positioned where they were convenient for layout, perhaps leaving paragraphs or even pages between them and the text referring to them.

Since the rise of the internet, people want their information in smaller chunks, and to be able to just have the relevant information close together. This brought about flatter structures with more headings, with any relevant tables or figures right under them, bypassing the need for numbering for them. This more compact layout makes it easier to provide the same content for both printed works and online.

This more compact structure paradigm also lends itself to the types of information chunks that can replace FAQs while providing the supporting related and ancillary information that FAQs can't.

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